Flesh and Bones (Part One)
A reflection by parishioner Emilie Oyen on Genesis 2:21-24.
Part One: Flesh and Bones (Adam & the Garden of Eden)
He was cold clay, soft and unshaped in many ways. His pasty complexion reminded one of a man deprived of sunlight and activity (though he had plenty of both) and his attitude was, frankly, unappealing and indifferent. He was uninspired, without passion, and still so naïve. He was mildly arrogant because, although naming animals came naturally to him, in certain circles it was a revered skill and his being adept at it made him something of a celebrity. But he was not yet wise, and didn’t see that the adoration lacked respect. He possessed minimal self-awareness. Sometimes, annoyingly, he acted as if he were the only man alive.
Yet for all his flaws Adam was hard to dislike. He couldn’t be blamed for his plight: a neglected soul surrounded by bounty. He walked along gold rivers and sat beneath knowing trees, and lived among the birds in the trees and the fish in the rivers, and the herds and swarms and packs and colonies of creatures, and always there was a cat rubbing against his leg or a praying mantis on his shoulder or a seagull perched on his head. It was paradise, but his ingratitude was understandable. Paradise is not trees and birds; paradise is one’s perception.
Adam named the animals, but what was that? He sat on his rock like a bored prince divvies out the fate of his people. With a flick of his wrist, he baptized them this and that. The names came effortlessly, but what he could not do was articulate the constant singing that plagued his heart: the uneasiness, the boredom, and the ache. What was the name for the heavy dark sky that loomed in his throat? What word could express the endless August afternoon by the river watching two cleaved dragonflies suspended in flight above the river’s watery rocks? How do you articulate the sadness that prospers in beauty and infinite time, or the repugnance of being born into paradise without expectations to meet? And finally, he wondered, how could he possibly explain loneliness when there was still no love?
God let there be firmament in the midst of the waters, and divided the waters and called the firmament heaven. He brought forth grass, and herb and trees yielding fruit whose seed was in itself. He set light in the firmament of the heavens. He let there be light—for signs for seasons and for days and years—he gave light upon the earth. He let the waters bring forth moving creatures, and fowl that may fly in the firmament of heaven, and great whales and every living creature that moveth—Be fruitful and multiply! He commanded. Fill the seas and the earth!
And it was beautiful.
Adam’s moment, on the other hand, was a little less orchestral. It did not inspire the poets. In fact, it was perhaps the most un-romantic, cringe-y, nauseating, arid, and disgusting one-night stand in the history of creation. There was no seduction, no swooning, no passion, no longing for more. This was an efficient clinical surgery: an incision, a bone snap, and a skin graft.
Adam didn’t care. He slept like the dead that night dreaming of lobster claws tangled in his hair and horseshoe crabs scurrying out from under him. Creatures who had died weeks before drifted through his dreams. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” he asked them. He looked at the clock, saw that there were hours before the funeral, pointed to a creature and said: Gazelle; and to another: Pigeon. Before long there was a parade of creatures passing by. They were swarming and coupling and he was sinking. The light was dwindling; he knew he was dying alive. He yearned to stab himself in the neck to distract from the pain in his chest—ribs breaking like twigs he confused with the pain he had no words for, the pain that had dwelled in his heart for so long.
And then, in the midst of this nocturnal despair, a tenderness arrived—a most gentle stroke touched him. The darkness faded away, and the pain and the dying did too. This won’t hurt, she promised and he trusted her and he succumbed to her and the relief was profound. The relief was magnificent. In the deepest source of this peace within he felt a garden unfurling, growing up to reach his ribs; vines growing up from his groins and around his bones; stomach flowers—orchids and lotus and hydrangea—blossoming open like dove wings filling him, filling the emptiness in his body and his heart, filling his flesh and bones.
The morning after
He woke with a hangover beyond anything he had ever experienced in his life. Valium, Xanax, Ambien, and Seconal—he hadn’t remembered taking anything to sleep or for pain, but apparently it had all been administered. He staggered in an anesthesia-dusk of Hyoscyamine and Propofol. He smelled of ether. He was nauseous and disoriented and when he vomited he suffered an excruciating pierce in his rib cage. He didn’t feel better. He rolled over, the sheets sticking to him, and squinted in the light pouring in from the window. The cramp in his left side gave him difficulty sitting up. Gripping his side, he cringed and fell back into bed, reached for the urn of water and tipped it into his mouth. It overflowed down his chest and onto the bed and everywhere. His thirst was great. He lifted the urn again and poured the remaining water over his head. The water was cold and his flesh tingled. For all his discomfort, his flesh felt weirdly alive. He looked down at himself. His body was different. Something had changed in the night.
As he put down the urn he sensed a presence in the room. He turned his gaze to the door and saw a silhouette standing there, leaning against the doorframe. The presence was willowy and her skin was gold in the yellow light.
Complicated emotions arose in him.
“Silverfish,” he said, awkward and nervous and not quite getting it right. “Scarlet Ibis? Grey fox.”
Eve stood there, waiting. “Woman.” He sat up, suddenly overcome with energy and purpose. He looked at Eve and like a negotiator asserting a final, unflinching offer, he shouted: “Woman!”
Over the many, many, many—many—years that followed, Adam would occasionally tell his sons and grandsons about the morning when his body hurt so much that he felt like he had been hit by an 18-wheeler, and the way his mind had floated around in an etherized balloon. “There she was,” he reminisced. “Your mother, the most compassionate animal of them all. She was transcendent in the morning light, quite lovely but also intimidating, a little freaky but stunning. There she was," he said, "rather impatiently waiting to be named.
“It was a birth…” he continued. “And an abortion. I was severed, and at the same time I was made complete.”
Sometimes I feel God’s presence in prayer, or while driving on a highway, once on a porch in a small African country, and often in church with the choir singing Hallelujah, and when this happens, I am bewildered and grateful, but then I go on and keep living my life. I still have to pick up the children at school, I still am responsible for dinner, I continue to worry about money and getting old. But I am also, secretly, transformed. God’s love interrupts my thoughts, and for a fleeting moment the dark sky lifts and I perceive life more fully. Walking with my children, buying a coffee, or washing the dishes, there is meaning in my life, and it is paradise. And so, for Adam. A garden opened within him, the sky lifted, and that morning the swarms and colonies and packs and herds of creatures welcomed a man transformed by God.
However, in many ways life goes on.
As momentous as Eve’s arrival was for Adam—as profound as God’s presence was that night—being cleaved to Eve (romantic and passionate as that might sound) may have had some advantages, but it was still not love.
To be continued.